Philip Roth. He looked at me quizzically and said "Who? What has he written?"
That seemed odd to me, like a high school geography teacher unable to locate California on a map. But when I thought about it more, the more I worried that this wasn't just an isolated example of an English teacher who should probably consider a new profession. Is Philip Roth, one of the most prolific and brilliant American novelists ever and one of my all-time favorite writers, really losing his vaunted status as a staple of the American literary canon? Even though he's still publishing frequently, is anyone still reading him?
My first exposure to Roth was about 12 years ago in a literature survey class in college. Reading Operation Shylock was something of a literary awakening for me. I'd always loved to read, and even though I was wrapping up my degree in English, most of my reading-for-fun was unfocused and directionless. I didn't quite understand what I liked and what I didn't. I just read, and didn't think too deeply about what I was reading — mostly because extracting meaning from Dean Koontz isn't exactly challenging. I was skeptical of literary fiction as stuffy and boring and not cool. Reading Roth, however, was the first time I can remember reading something I knew was supposed to be heady and literary and really smart, and actually really enjoying it!
Portnoy's Complaint, perhaps Roth's most famous novel. This wasn't too long after the movie American Pie came out, and I nearly died laughing at the American Pie-esque scene in the novel (first published in 1969!) that involves the main character, and a unique and rather disturbing way of ruining the liver his family was going to have for dinner.
And that's what I've always loved about Roth (and my favorite writers, in general, for that matter.). Yeah, he's regarded as a literary genius who has won the National Book Award twice and the Pulitzer once, and is only the third novelists to have his work collected and published by the Library of America while still alive. But he can also slip into Beavis and Butthead mode, and regale you with low-brow hilariousness.
So, even though Roth, at 76 years young, is still publishing frequently (his latest titled The Humbling came out last fall, though to fairly poor reviews), it just seems to me like you don't hear much about Roth anymore. Every October, I get excited for the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because any year now, Mr. Roth will get his due. But so far it hasn't happened. Maybe if it does, Roth's work will see a Renaissance. I can only hope!
What do you think? Do you still read Roth? What are your favorite Roth novels?
(If you haven't read Roth, I'd certainly encourage you to try him. A good place to start is American Pastoral, but The Human Stain, Indignation, The Plot Against America and The Great American Novel [if you're a baseball fan] are all terrific as well. )